A Singer's Notes by Keith Kibler / Theater

A Singer’s Notes, 13: Youth Is Not Wasted on the Young – of Così Fan Tutte, Les Liaisons Dangereuses, and Romeo and Juliet

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Elizabeth Aspenlieder and Lydia Barnett-Mulligan in Dangerous Liaisons. Photo Kevin Sprague.
Elizabeth Aspenlieder and Lydia Barnett-Mulligan in Dangerous Liaisons. Photo Kevin Sprague.

Cosi Fan Futte is an opera I have sung often so I looked forward to going to The Dangerous Liaisons (Christopher Hampton’s stage adaptation of Choderlos de Laclos’ epistolary novel) that Shakespeare and Co. has had up for some time now. The brittleness of the spoken play and the precipitous action constantly crowding scene into scene requires exquisite skill from the actors in this play. Mozart’s opera seems expansive and almost sweet next to it. Making the epistolary prose of Laclos into a working drama of reasonable length is not an easy task. The action has an awful purity which is only softened at the very end and given an almost romantic turn as the true lovers die in close succession. This can easily seem manipulated, but in Tina Packer’s production did not. And the reason was the performance of Kelly Galvin as Madame de Tourvel. This excellent young actor had a steady and pathetic perplexity when love came to her (in the person of someone other than her absent husband).  This steadiness almost made me buy the way the play ends. The other young actor in the cast, Lydia Barnett-Mulligan, found a way to use her few lines richly and rarely. What can be harder than portraying a believable innocent? Even more difficult, one who switches to an easy lasciviousness with slight provocation. This young actor (my friend, also a superb director) managed to nail both of these things. The seduction scene is basically a rape in which she screamed and threw herself around as any young girl accosted would do. These hollers and whoops I found the most realistic vocality in the production. It wasn’t theatrical.   She acceded to the seduction in a way which was equally, believably young. It was direct. It was simple. All of this in a matter of five or six minutes of stage time. She made it work. I believed it.

At the Acting Company’s performance of Romeo and Juliet in the Colonial Theatre, I saw the best Romeo I’ve ever seen in the person of Sonny Valicenti. He wasn’t a matinee idol. There was no palpitating. He was befuddled by the force that love has. He stayed befuddled. He didn’t figure anything out. Juliet does that because she is an ancient spirit. This Romeo had the aspect of being near a kind of blazing heat. Is it love or is it Juliet? He got no answers. He went straight on trying to make his way through the fog up to and through the portal of death. All of this without one histrionic wallow. And here’s the miracle of it- he spoke the early and honeyed verse so well that it lacked nothing in beauty, even while he showed the utter inability of the speaking Romeo to comprehend it all. This was also a young actor who was not an old actor being young, but a young actor being himself. Never has the role made so much sense to me. Juliet is an ancient force. Next to her so many Romeos looks like just so many fops. Sonny gave a realistic and searing demonstration of what happens when a very movable and young object meets an irresistible (and ageless) force.

Now I know why it worked for Mozart to have at his operatic premieres singers in their twenties (one as young as twelve: Barbarina in Le Nozze di Figaro). They were singing themselves. Their real selves and their artistic selves were practically touching. This is what I saw in these two fine productions last week.

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